Of course you know that there are all sorts of medical conditions caused by stress: obesity, heart disease, problems sleeping, skin conditions, and on and on. It’s likely your doctor tells you she wants you to “reduce stress” about as frequently as she tells you to loose a few pounds or cut back on your drinking.
It’s also one of the more common complaints I hear at coffee shops and in my therapy office:
Stress is nearly always talked about in physiological terms. You’re familiar with the story. Our bodies respond to real or imagined stressors with a number of physical responses, most notably the nervous system releases a set of chemicals designed to put our bodies into a state of high-alert. Breathing quickens, heart rate increases, and we’re ready for action. This is all a good, healthy response to occasional, dramatic circumstances that most of us find ourselves in from time to time. The same set of responses that help the gazelle escape the hungry lion are designed to get us humans through a tight spot. Where we run into trouble, of course, is when that system is engaged more frequently than our bodies can handle.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
But here’s the thing: If everyone knows so much about stress, why is it most people are so bad at eliminating it?
This is one of those, “Come on, let’s be honest with each other” moments. Stress just might be the favored cocktail party (water cooler/ facebook/ family-get-together) topic of our times. Check out what a twitter search for the verb stressed reveals. These people are boasting. They’re bonding. They’re competing!
The fact is, we live in a culture of stress. Stress is how we let one another know that we’re working hard, have a lot going on, or that we really care about the things we’re supposed to care about. Being stressed means you’re important enough and busy enough.
But enough for what? What we’re really saying with all this stress talk is that being important or hard working needs to harm our bodies (not to mention our relationships and our emotional lives) in order to count. Our relationship with stress is much like the aspiring ballerina who, following a rehearsal, stares at her feet with disappointment because her workout hasn’t caused them to bleed.
If stress is the culturally agreed upon marker for things like working hard and being important, might we wonder if it is, perhaps, a short cut for actually working hard and doing important work? Are there, perhaps, better ways of showing one another that we care (about them, about our obligations)?
I need my stress!
So many of us have come to believe that stress (never mind just talking about it) is a necessary tool for getting the job done. “If I’m not stressed, I won’t do good work.” Like the morning cup of coffee for so many people, stress is something many of us can’t imagine living with out. We’ve come to believe that stress is what gets us through the hard day and helps us do our best work.
This is part of why taking up golf or yoga, absent engaging in some honesty about just how into stress we are, is only going to have limited usefulness. Eliminating stress is a life-wide activity.
The truth is, you don’t need stress. Your body and your brain actually work better when you’re not under stress. Stress keeps you from being close to people. It wears you out.
We have to change the culture of stress
What if you decided to lead your family/ friends/ coworkers (your therapy group) away from stress talk? To engage in changing the culture in the environments where you spend most of your time around the topic of stress? I’ve come to think that’s what’s involved in truly doing something about your stress.
For starters, pay attention to how much stress talk is a part of your conversations. Begin to create conversations without it. Let people around you know that you’ve given up stress, and that while you’d love to hear about what’s going on in their lives, you’re not available to talk with them about how STRESSED they are. Talk openly with the people in the various groups you’re in: “Hey everybody, I’m realizing that we talk about stress all the time, but we don’t seem to be doing anything about it. Let’s find some new ways of talking.” Tell people what’s important to you, and find out what’s important to them, without stressing out about it.
Skip the stress. It’s killing you.